Several days later, Columbia University professor and medical doctor Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh, was out walking in Manhattan when a group of teenagers shouting "Terrorist!" and "Get Osama!" attacked and beat him. Singh ultimately wound up in a hospital, where he underwent surgery for a fractured jaw.
Both of these situations raise the troubling issue of stereotyping, which most people have experienced at some time or another, due to gender, age, size, religion, and so on. Being stereotyped can be annoying, because it involves being viewed superficially, as a generic caricature of a person, rather than the unique individuals God created us to be. But for ethnic minorities, stereotyping has much deeper ramifications.
Author Tim Wise explains that when a white person does something murderous or incompetent, there's a tendency to attribute this action solely to the individual. Conversely, when a racial minority does something murderous or incompetent, this behavior is often viewed as representative of that person's entire race of people, who are then stereotyped accordingly.
As an example, this country did not stereotype white men with sandy blond crew cuts as terrorists in 1995 when domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal government building in Oklahoma City. In contrast Muslims and Middle Easterners have been broadly stereotyped as terrorists since 9/11. This includes physical and verbal bullying of Muslim children in schools which has become "especially severe" since 2001. This terrorist stereotype also extends to people who only look like they're Muslim or Middle Eastern. For example,over 300 documented hate crimes have been committed against Sikhs since 9/11, like the recent attack on Prabhjot Singh in Manhattan. Other hate crimes against Sikhs have included shootings, murders, and destruction of property, often accompanied by racial slurs about terrorists. But Sikhs are a non-Muslim religious group that originated in India and had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 2001. Yet, they're mistakenly stereotyped as terrorists, due to their turbans and skin color.
This mistaken identity stereotyping has huge potential ramifications for people like me. I'm the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and when I watched the World Trade Center collapse, I thought, I sure hope North Korea wasn't behind this! Because if they were, then people who look like me—adults and children of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai descent—would be stereotyped as terrorists and treated as hostile.
Why Reject Stereotyping?
Recognizing the inclination to stereotype as a universal human condition, do we see anything about our Christian faith that might uniquely call us to reject this temptation?
New Testament scholar Craig Evans says that during Jesus' life on this earth, many in Israel expected the Messiah would appear as a regal warrior king who would overthrow the Romans and restore the Davidic monarchy. But Jesus did not fit the societal stereotype of an earthly king. He didn't look the part (Isaiah 53:2), and in the eyes of his critics, he also said the wrong things (John 10:32-33), did the wrong things (Luke 13:12-14), came from the wrong place (John 7:25-27, John 7:52), and associated with the wrong people (Luke 5:29-30). As a result, the only Israelites who recognized Jesus had rejected the societal stereotype that dictated what a "real" Messiah should look like.
If stereotyping prevented intelligent and devout religious people from seeing Jesus' true identity, then how should we strive to view each other today? Jesus offered an answer in the respectful and loving way he treated negatively stereotyped people groups (such as Samaritans, tax collectors, women), and through his words, "Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly" (John 7:24).
Here are some practical ways we can all heed this wisdom.
- We can acknowledge that it's unfair to stereotype entire people groups, based on the actions of violent extremists in those groups. We Christians in particular should be sensitive to this problem, because I'm sure none of us wants David Koresh or Westboro Baptist Church to be viewed as representative of us.
- We can avoid making statements like, "But they're all really like that!" or "But they all perpetuate the stereotype!" to justify stereotyping entire people groups. Because they're not all like that—in fact, people often act in "unstereotypical" ways. But when they do, they tend to be viewed as exceptions to their stereotype, rather than the unique individuals God created them to be. As a result, we often fail to recognize that there's a much broader range of individual behavior within any people group than the associated stereotype would indicate.
- We can speak up on behalf of people who are being unfairly stereotyped—although this isn't always easy. As an example, I was recently sitting in a group of people at a large social event, when two white, 40-something Christian men sitting next to me began loudly bashing African American people. I discreetly and politely pointed out that they were unfairly stereotyping an entire people group, and their response was both negative and shocking.
What about those of us who are racial minorities and on the receiving end of stereotyping?
- We can resist the temptation to engage in retaliation stereotyping. If I want to be viewed as a unique individual instead of a racial stereotype, then I need to forgive and extend that same consideration to others.
- We can choose to engage in honest, respectful dialogue with people of other races. These conversations are uncomfortable, scary to initiate, and have great potential to blow up in our faces. But they're vital if we want dialogue rather than many different monologues. They're also necessary if we truly desire racial unity within the body of Christ.
These steps help us to no longer conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2), to look beyond outward appearances (1 Samuel 16:7), and to love people of other races as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34). It's what Christians of all ages and ethnicities are called to do, and if it's done well, it can have tremendous kingdom-building results.